Our skin fills many roles. It helps manage body temperature, wards off bacteria and other insects, and is key to our sense of touch.
Skin unites us all in these common functions, but our skin also varies cosmetically.
Your skin tone can affect how quickly you grow wrinkles and sunspots. It can also determine if you are more prone to hyperpigmentation, dark areas of your skin.
Skin tone is not just a matter of race, as people from the same background can have very different skin colors. Race and ethnicity generally don’t accurately reflect skin tone, says Anna Chien, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Doctors speak of “skin types” ranging from 1 to 6. Skin type 1 is the palest, which always burns and never tans. Midtones, such as Type 4, are light brown, tan easily, and rarely burn. The darkest, skin type 6, is deeply pigmented and never burns. This range of skin types is also referred to as the “Fitzpatrick skin type”, named after the doctor who developed it. It is based on the amount of pigment in a person’s skin and how their skin reacts to sun exposure.
Learn from three dermatologists how skin tone can affect our skincare routines.
The doctors call sun damage “photoaging,” which includes wrinkles and sunspots that can accompany sun exposure.
It tends to happen “a bit faster” in people who have lighter skin types, Chien says. “And they are more prone to skin cancers.”
In contrast, people with darker skin “often have a delay in the signs of photoaging. And they also have a lower risk of skin cancersays Julia Mhlaba, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This pigment actually provides sun protection.”
But it’s important to keep in mind that a lower risk of skin cancer does not mean a zero risk. “Any skin type can develop skin cancer,” says Shani Francis, MD, a dermatologist in the Los Angeles area.
Misconceptions that people with darker skin do not get skin cancer are dangerous because it can lead to delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis. “We can definitely see skin cancer in darker-skinned people,” says Chien. “And unfortunately, because it’s not talked about often…skin cancer can be discovered later, when it’s much more advanced.”
In darker-skinned people, cancers can also occur in places “where patients aren’t usually exposed to sunlight, such as the bottoms of the hands and feet,” says Mhlaba.
Universal need: sunscreen
All skin tones require Solar cream with an SPF of at least 30 – everyday, rain or shine – to help prevent skin cancer and slow photoaging.
“We always recommend sun protection because even in people with darker skin [and in] people who say, “I never burn; I always tan’, they always get damage in the skin,” says Chien.
If you’ll be outdoors for long periods of time, use at least an SPF of 60, Chien says. Reapply often, especially if you are active, sweatswim or get wet.
Physical blocking sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide offer the best protection, according to experts. But on darker skin tones, these products aren’t always aesthetically pleasing.
“It can cause a white film on the skin, which is difficult for people with darker skin,” says Chien. She recommends tinted sunscreens that might match their skin tone better.
Tinted Solar cream may offer other benefits. In darker-skinned people, longer wavelengths beyond UV rays may be more damaging than in lighter-skinned people, Chien says. “The tint may actually protect against a bit of the longer wavelength that their skin might be more sensitive to,” she explains.
Don’t rely solely on sunscreen. “I always tell my patients that sunscreens aren’t perfect,” says Chien. “We need to reapply and combine [it] with other measures.
This includes shipping Sun glasses and long-sleeved shirts, avoiding peak sun, seeking shade, and wearing wide-brimmed hats. She calls it a “multimodal approach to sun protection.”
And don’t rely on SPF in to put on makeup alone to give you enough protection, Chien says. “The SPF they get in the lab – usually they apply a pretty thick amount of this makeup, so it doesn’t really mimic everyday use.”
What to know about retinol and retinoids
Regular use of sunscreen and moisturizer can help slow the signs of aging. And so can using a retinoid or retinol on your skin.
“These are vitamin A derivatives that can either be purchased in over-the-counter versions or prescribed by a dermatologist at higher dosages,” says Mhlaba. “They do a lot of things: They’re used to treat acne. They can help with pigmentation. But they can also help smooth fine lines and prevent wrinkles from forming.
People with darker skin can use stronger retinoids, but should start slowly to avoid irritating their skin, says Mhlaba. “If they develop irritation, it can cause hyperpigmentation more easily than in patients with lighter skin types,” she explains.
Her tip: When you start using a retinol or retinoid, apply only a small amount to your face and do it every few days at first. Follow with moisturizer to help reduce any skin irritation.
Wearing sunscreen on your face not only slows photoaging, Mhlaba says, but can also help keep hyperpigmentation from getting worse.
Hyperpigmentation can occur in all skin types, but it’s more common in people of color, Mhlaba says.
“This can occur from acne scars or eczema or at sites of trauma, and then there are other conditions that lead to hyperpigmentation, like melasma,” she says. Melasma appears as patches of darker pigmentation, especially on the face.
Sun exposure can make hyperpigmentation worse – another reason sunscreen is essential. Products that can treat hyperpigmentation include vitamin C products containing serum or vitamin C, glycolic acid, azelaic acid and niacinamide, notes Mhlaba.
For melasma, dermatologists may also prescribe hydroquinone-based compounds or oral medications.
Dry skin can affect all skin tones. “But if your skin is darker, dry skin is light white, and therefore there is more contrast. It’s much more noticeable,” says Francis. This dry appearance comes from the scales of the skin peeling off.
Darker skin that becomes dry could benefit from “a really good thick moisturizer, something that could help rebuild the [skin] barrier,” says Chien.
Don’t judge a product by its thickness in the container. What matters most is how thick it feels on your skin, says Francis. She suggests looking for ingredients like ceramides, glycerinecastor oil, petroleum jelly and hemp seed oil.
Gentle moisturizer on damp skin after showering or bathing. “It will keep the water in the skin,” she said.
People of all skin tones can have sensitivity issues. “Stick with really bland products,” says Chien. Choose unscented products and stay away from those labeled antibacterial.
“Keep the skincare regimen pretty simple: just a gentle face cleanser, a gentle moisturizer, something with built-in SPF for the day, and just plain moisturizer at night,” she says.
People with sensitive skin can test a product behind their ear or upper arm to make sure they don’t react to the product, Chien says.
She recommends “not adding a lot of serums or anti-aging products. Many of them can be irritating.
If people with sensitive skin want to exfoliate, “it’s a bit more patient-specific in terms of their skin’s tolerance,” says Mhlaba. Physical exfoliants can be too harsh. But “if you’re talking about a chemical exfoliator, I would definitely recommend starting slow and working your way up to using it daily, if needed. Sometimes even just…once a week, depending on the product, may be enough.
“Look for things with salicylic acid, glycolic acid,” she says. “A lot of topical creams will have it. It’s a great way to exfoliate.